Unlikable Characters


By C. Margery Kempe

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the likabilty of characters in the publishing world, especially female characters. Sometimes I think it’s the greatest taboo to be unlikable (although promoting yourself seems to be right up there, too).

I have been turning this over idly because one of my all-time favorite television characters is back in a second series of The Bridge (Bron/Broen), Saga Norén, played by Sofia Helin.

The Swedish/Danish production makes much of the location of the Øresund Bridge that runs between Malmö and Copenhagan. The Swedes are stereotyped as uptight killjoys in Denmark, while Danes are often seen as decadent hedonists. While the Danish cop, Martin, tries to be a nice guy and get along with everyone while they deal with a bizarre murder in the first series (and an outbreak of plague in the second). Saga, however, is nigh on Asperger-ish (the show never ‘diagnoses’ her, though her co-workers giggle when Martin arrives wondering how he will deal with her ‘special’ personality) and finds most of the delicate dance of ‘getting along with people’ either a waste of time or simply incomprehensible.

It’s great that she has the confidence to walk into a bar and ask a man to have sex. He tries the usual ploy of asking her if he can buy her a drink when she tells him this, and he’s nonplussed and then suspicious. After the vigorous sex, she falls right to sleep and later he awakes to find her reviewing case photos including a cut in half torso. He leaves in a hurry.

Saga is very smart and knows that she is not like other people. In the midst of a real tangle of a case, she’s motivated by Martin’s example to attempt to actually try out more ‘normal’ pursuits. Part of the fun is the two of them always being at odds, but there’s so much refreshing about a woman who feels no need to please other people. It’s fun when she bluntly asks Martin, “How’s your scrotum?” after he’s injured, but it’s also kind of delicious that she seldom has any self-doubt whatsoever.

She may not be likable, but Saga is certainly fascinating and I’m so glad there’s a second series of The Bridge. I have had a few characters that I think might be considered something less than “likable” even among my romance  titles, like Shai in the first Man City novella. She doesn’t exactly cheat on her boyfriend but she’s not willing to settle for just him alone. She wants more more more. Does that make her unlikable?

Do heroines need to be likable? Do you feel the pressure to be likable?

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12 Comments

  • Kemberlee
    January 17, 2014 at 5:22 am

    I think there are two kinds of like here — characters we like and are endeared to (usually the hero and/or heroine) and characters we love to hate (usually the bad guy/gal). I would say the protagonist and antagonist, but there are a lot of stories out there where the antagonist is the key character in the story, such as in horror or crime which is being told from the baddy’s POV.

    If there’s a character I truly dislike and it makes it difficult to enjoy the story or program, I usually turn off. For me, this happened with Game of Thrones. Joffrey became an evil and vile character, and scenes with him directing sexual abuse of woman turned my stomach. I had to stop watching. Sad really because I loved the character of the Khaleesi and her dragons but I won’t subject myself to Joffrey to see the Khaleesi scenes.

  • C. Margery Kempe
    January 17, 2014 at 8:55 am

    I see what you’re saying and I think that’s interesting. I objected to the same annoyance a certain NYTimes bestselling author did when she was told that no one would want to be “best friends” with her main character. So what?! I like complicated characters. They’re more fun.

  • Elizabeth Shore
    January 17, 2014 at 10:56 am

    I like complicated characters, too. The whole “love to hate them” thing is really fun and keeps the interest going. I hear what Kemberlee is saying about Joffrey. That character is absolutely vile, but (not having read all of the books yet) I keep waiting for the scene when he gets killed off. Knowing how other characters in the series seem to meet their demise sooner or later, I’ve gotta believe that Joffrey’s going to be, it’s just a matter of when. Nonetheless, the anticipation keeps me watching. I feel similarly when it comes to characters I’m reading. Love to hate them, and love when they meet their comeuppance.

  • Madeline Iva
    January 17, 2014 at 11:06 am

    I see what you’re all saying about characters we love and identify with and characters that we love to hate.

    However, I think Kate’s talking about a third cateorgy of character. You might call it the “wish fulfillment” character. This is the character who we wish we could be like, because she violates the repressive norms we all follow.

    There are male versions of this that we’re very familiar with — Larry David and Howard Stern come to mind. Howard Sterns is the thirteen year old boy in a man’s body, doing what some men strangled by their jobs and conformity wish they could do. Larry David calls people out on their inconsistencies and absurdities while he is constantly foiled in trying to indulges himself in his own selfish ways. He admits that he loves the character he plays and just wishes he could behave that way in real life–but of course he doesn’t.

    I think that women –who as you put it Kate — don’t bother to please others at all — are creeping into this space for us. They are definitely transgressive and we love them for it.

    Lizabeth Sander is another such character– and there are two other books I’ve read recently that you’d like with similar female characters. TALKING TO THE DEAD includes a female character who is feelings-challenged and GARNETHILL focusses on the brash Scots and their happiness in telling the world to eft off. Both are murder mysteries — funny how these hardboiled women are more acceptable there than they are in other genres. However, I think urban fantasy allows for a more kick-ass and emotionally rumpled sort of version of this character.

    Great post!

  • LizEverly
    January 17, 2014 at 12:29 pm

    Some of my favorite women characters are not quite likable. I’m thinking mostly of Agatha Raisin in MC Beaton’s long-time series, set in the Cotswolds. I really like her, even though she’s bit prickly. To me, she much more interesting many of the lovable and sweet mystery characters.

    • Madeline Iva
      January 18, 2014 at 7:49 am

      You said it! And Alexa, I’m with you too — I think I’m nice, but man, once there’s pressure to be super-really-crazy nice, suddenly I don’t want to identify with nice at all. It’s the same thing with happy — if there’s suddenly all this pressure for everyone to be totally happy, things start to seem very sinister to me.

  • Alexa Day
    January 17, 2014 at 11:43 pm

    See, I didn’t know Saga before I read this post. I definitely want to know her now. I don’t think she’s unlikable, Kate, based on what you’re saying — I just think she isn’t very nice. Honestly, I think nice is overrated. I’ve often said that I myself am a *good* person, not a *nice* person. Making the switch from nice to good has taken loads of pressure off me!

    All I need from my fictional heroes and heroines is that I want to know more about them and want the best things (as those characters would define them) to happen to them and for them. They don’t have to be sweet people; they just have to be interesting!

    Genuinely unlikable characters are another thing altogether. I have enough genuinely unlikable people floating around in my ‘real’ world for free! I’m not going to embrace them in my fiction unless some greater Order ensures that karma is on its way to them.

    • C. Margery Kempe
      January 19, 2014 at 6:27 am

      Saga is wonderful! I think nice is overrated too. How quickly the B word emerges if you don’t back down.

  • Madeline Moore
    January 18, 2014 at 5:40 am

    An Amazon reviewer of my Black Lace novel, Sarah’s Education, stated that the main character was unlikeable. I was surprised, first that Sarah, a smart odd-ball philosophy student, wasn’t likeable. I knew she had plenty to learn (hence the “education” and was somewhat arrogant, but I thought she started out interesting and became more so as the novel unfolded. There are many anti-heroes in popular mainstream AND genre fiction. She isn’t an anti-heroine, just young, naive, intelligent and unusual. I thought she was great! If women who read erotica want really nice female protagonists, I can’t help but wonder if they’d be better off reading erotic romance. I’m always interested in what any reviewer has to say about my work but I don’t feel compelled to change the way I depict my female protagonists in future books. Frankly, I like a feisty little bitch! They’re probably good sex partners, too. I don’t WANT to wander into the question of gender bias but most male main characters in erotica for women and erotic romance for women start out with “issues” that make them intriguing and infuriating. Is it really so much more attractive in a male character than a female character? Not to me.

    • Madeline Iva
      January 18, 2014 at 7:43 am

      Well, Madeline, I think the general understanding is that women want to be friends with the heroine, but they want to see the unruly hero ‘tamed’ if you know what I mean… But yeah, I vomit a little in my mouth sometimes reading about self-sacrificing heroines. So I’m not going to like those books. And women who really dig those books aren’t going to like the feisty little bitch, you know? They’re just different readerships. The only time I start to worry is when I wonder if the self-sacrificing heroine readers are like, 75% of romance readers and the feisty little bitch readers are a wee tiny small group. 🙁

    • Alexa Day
      January 18, 2014 at 9:48 am

      I’m not sure enough is being done to differentiate erotica and erotic romance — I’d love to see more education for readers in that realm. (The education would, of course, be very hot and loads of fun, with many reading assignments and ‘pop’ quizzes, and please someone stop me before I talk myself into another project.) I love writing erotica because I can write characters who are even less nice than my usual not-so-nice romance characters. I share Madeline’s concern that fewer readers want a feisty little bitch, but alongside that, I worry that (1) readers will insist on our feisty little friend turning into a sweetiepie and (2) they will insist on the taming of our heroes. The notion of taming a man is really disturbing to me.

  • C. Margery Kempe
    January 22, 2014 at 8:46 am

    Reblogged this on C. Margery Kempe and commented:

    I <3 Saga!

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